Top 10 Biggest Surprises at the Summer Box Office

Are you ready for another summer of Hollywood blockbusters? As the movie studios make final preparations for their summer schedule we look at the surprises during blockbuster season…

Summer is the most lucrative time of the year for Hollywood studios. It’s when they release the biggest budgeted films and, most of the time, they are focused on pleasing an audience instead of winning awards. Sure the winter season is big as well, but for every Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Twilight that comes out in the winter months you have The Dark Knight, Avengers and Transformers. Summer weekdays give films a chance to have 4-5 multipliers, which means they make 4-5 times as much as they gross on opening weekend.

Top 10 Blockbusters of the 1990s

Top 10 Films Biggest Surprises at the Summer Box Office

The king of the summer blockbuster is the man who brought the world Jaws, Indiana Jones and Jurassic ParkSteven Spielberg. The term “blockbuster” dates back to the classic Hollywood period with films like 1939’s Gone With The Wind being referred to as a blockbuster based on their financial success. However, Jaws is generally referred to as the modern summer blockbuster referring to its popularity at the box office and movie studios planning strategic marketing campaigns around peak release dates of high-concept films during the summer months. Check out Top 10 Films’ Greatest Blockbusters of the 1990s here.

Top 10 Summer Blockbusters through the Years

Over the years, it was easy to pick what films would make the top 10 every summer. Just find the sequel to some enormously popular film and chances are it would make the top 10 list. But what about those films released in the summer that shocked everyone? It doesn’t take a genius to realise that The Phantom Menace and the final chapter in the Harry Potter series would make money. But there are films that come out that catch everyone by surprise…including the studios that release them.

This list will look at the ten biggest surprises at the summer box office OVER THE LAST 20 YEARS. This is for two reasons: 1) because marketing strategies really started to change in the 90s and 2) no one wants to see another list of mine that has JAWS on it.

Instead of doing a top 10 list based on rank, I’ll just do them starting from the earliest to the latest. All grosses are world wide.

Cliffhanger (1993) $255 million

Top 10 Films Biggest Surprises at the Summer Box Office
In 1993, Renny Harlin and Sylvester Stallone teamed up to give us one of the most thrilling action films of all time. A lot of the stunts in the film were real and Stallone did a lot of his climbing. What singles Cliffhanger out as one of the biggest surprises at the summer box office is that Stallone was at one of the lowest points of his career and had been for about 9 years. After Rocky IV in 1985, nothing did well, including Rambo III. But Tri-Star took a 70 million dollar chance on this film and it paid off dearly for them and for Stallone.
Need more Sly Stallone – check out our Top 10 Action Heroes of the 1980s

Forrest Gump (1994) $677 million

Top 10 Films Biggest Surprises at the Summer Box Office

Forrest Gump is a miracle in every way. This is a film that producer Wendy Finerman never gave up on. She bought the rights to author Winston Groom’s book in 1985 and spent 6 years trying to get someone in Hollywood to produce it. Finally, in 1993, Tom Hanks and Robert Zemeckis agreed to do it after Eric Roth tweaked the screenplay to make it much different than the book. The film is very American and yet it made more money internationally than it did in the US (347 million to 329 million). Off a 55 million dollar budget, it opened to 24 million and went on to make 329 mill, a multiplier of more than 13. Persistence paid off for Finerman making Forrest Gump one of the biggest surprises at the summer box office.
See where Forrest Gump ranks in our Top 10 Tom Hanks Films – 1990 to 2010

Independence Day (1996) $817 million

Top 10 Films Biggest Surprises at the Summer Box Office

Director Roland Emmerich was really not known in 1996. Will Smith’s biggest hit before ID4 was Bad Boys with 65 million. Yet here they both were making a 75 million dollar alien invasion film. This is the film that propelled Smith to the box office giant that he is and it also started his “Mr. July 4th” moniker. The film made 65% of its money internationally and at the time was the third highest grossing film of all time. 1996 was also a time where there weren’t many sequels, which makes this gross that much more impressive as it is an original film.
Independence Day is one of the best science-fiction films of the 1990s

There’s Something About Mary (1998) $369 million

Top 10 Films Biggest Surprises at the Summer Box Office
This is the film that kick-started many careers and many trends. The Farrelly Brothers were previously successful with Dumb and Dumber, but this one put them over the top. Then you have Cameron Diaz and Ben Stiller who got rich from this. And of course the entire genre of the gross out/extreme comedy started from here. The film wasn’t even on anyone’s radar in 1998, making no one’s top ten projections for the summer. It opened with 13 million dollars and then proceeded to drop no more than 21% in its next 11 weeks.
Discover more great comedy in our Top 10 Comedy Films

The Blair Witch Project (1999) $248 million

Top 10 Films Biggest Surprises at the Summer Box Office

This is the film that for all intents and purposes, started the viral marketing boom. It was made for $60,000 (or the cost of Jack Nicholson’s cigars on a shoot) and using clever tactics at Cannes and other festivals from around the world, the film caught fire. In it’s first weekend of wide release, it made 29 million dollars. And in the process, it scared and nauseated film-goers with its shaky cam work. Many producers/directors tried to duplicate its success but not many succeeded. Along with Sixth Sense, 1999 was the year of the unknowns making it big in the summer.
Get more scares in our Top 10 Scariest Films of All Time

Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) $654 million

Top 10 Films Biggest Surprises at the Summer Box Office
Pirate movies don’t do well. Johnny Depp was a method actor who had 1 100 million dollar hit to his name. Premiere Magazine had Pirates of the Caribbean finishing with 120 million dollars. 2003 was supposed to be the year of Morpheus and Neo. There were a myriad of reasons why this film was not going to succeed. But super producer Jerry Bruckheimer knew something we didn’t, and he put his money where his faith was as he got Disney to put 140 million dollars into the production. It paid off enormously as the POTC franchise was one of the most profitable of the 2000s.
Jack Sparrow…one of the great modern day anti-heroes!

Mamma Mia (2008) $609 million

Top 10 Films Biggest Surprises at the Summer Box Office
A musical, in the summer, starring Meryl Streep. It couldn’t succeed. But it did, in spite of everyone. The two biggest markets for it were the US/Canada where it made 144 million and second was The United Kingdom, where it made 69 million pounds, which puts it at 6th on the all time list, just behind films like Avatar, Titanic and Skyfall. Musicals tend not to do this well. But Mamma Mia surprised everyone.
Loved for its use of Abba songs…but what are our favourite film composers?

The Proposal (2009) $317 million

Top 10 Films Biggest Surprises at the Summer Box Office
There are movie websites you can go to that discuss every aspect of a movie’s gross. Out of 100 or so members (at the place I frequent) to make predictions in 2009 about the top summer films, 3 had The Proposal on the top 15. Ryan Reynolds was not a draw and Sandra Bullock had yet to have an enormous hit outside of her early success. The Proposal made 163 million in US/Canada and another 153 million internationally. This caught everyone by surprise.
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Bridesmaids (2011) $288 million

Top 10 Films Biggest Surprises at the Summer Box Office
In a summer of high profile sequels like Transformers, Harry Potter, The Hangover, Fast Five and many others, this tiny 32 million dollar film would take North America by storm. It did well internationally for a film that had no real stars in it, but most of its accolades comes from North America. It finished 10th in the summer but ahead of it were 7 sequels/prequels and two Marvel films. The only original film that finished higher was The Help, but because of its insignificant international showing, Bridesmaids makes the list over it. This film also made a star out of Kristen Wiig and of course Melissa McCarthy.
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Avengers (2012) $1.5 billion

Top 10 Films Biggest Surprises at the Summer Box Office

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Granted, people knew this would be a hit. We knew it was a unique film and pretty much something that had never been done before on this level. But no one knew it would set records and gross as much as it did. This is the first film to make 200 million opening weekend, the first film to make 100 million in its second weekend and all of this while not setting any midnight records or opening day records. The Avengers was enormous everywhere and now it is responsible for the resurrection of the Iron Man franchise (Iron Man 1 and 2 made about 600 million WW, IM3 already opened to 195 million dollars internationally)and will probably cause a spike in the other solo Avenger members films. And we all can’t wait to see what it does for an encore when the sequel comes out in 2015.
Top 10 Superhero Films

There are many, many other films that could have made this list. Some of them are: Sister Act (1992), Spider-man (2002), The Sixth Sense (1999), Twister (1996), The Fugitive (1993)

Top 10 Films asks: What are your biggest surprises at the summer box office?

Written and compiled by Dan Grant.
Follow Dan on Twitter @baumer72. Dan Grant is a writer from Canada who has a particular passion for horror film.

Discover More from Dan Grant: Top 10 Bill Paxton Films | Top 10 Dumbest Friday The 13th Moments | Top 10 Scariest Films Ever Made | 50 Films Better Than “The Dark Knight Rises” in 2012

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About the Author
Dan Grant is an author and horror film fan from Canada. His first novel Terrified and Defenseless is now available for e-download from Amazon. Follow Dan on Twitter @baumer72.

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  1. Avatar
    Charles Reply

    Oh…Cliffhanger…one of my faves of the 1990s. Yes, it did put Sly Stallone back on the map even if I prefer to see John Lithgow in a comedy role. But those aerial shots are amazing!

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    Rodney Reply

    The Matrix was an enormous surprise success upon release – for a relatively low-budget, incomprehenisbly complex sci-fi flick (with only Keanu Reeves as a “name” star) admittedly with a fairly slick marketing campaign, for it to go on and make the kind of money it did took even Warner’s by surprise (and they know how to make a successful film!).

  3. Avatar
    Steve S Reply

    The Blair Witch Project was special. I don’t think we’ll see another horror perform that well ever again. You can see why films like The Proposal and Bridesmaids made a lot of money but Blair Witch got audiences flocking to theaters for completely different reasons.

  4. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    @Rodney…yes Matrix is a great film and one that no one saw coming but it came out in March. Summer films come out from May 1st to Labour Day.

  5. Avatar
    Evan Crean Reply

    Some great films made this particular list. Love me some Cliffhanger, Forrest Gump, Independence Day, Something About Mary, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Avengers. It is pretty funny how many people have tried to duplicate the success of Blair Witch with all these found footage movies. Their trend is one I hope dies out soon. Surprised that Mamma Mia and The Proposal were such big hits. Finally, I like Bridesmaids, but I’ve never understood all the hooplah surrounding it. Funny yes, outrageously funny, meh, not to me.

  6. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    @Evan: You are not alone in your Bridesmaids apathy. I’ve heard many echo those sentiments. I personally found it very funny, but humour is obviously very subjective.

    I’d be curious to see what some of you think regarding some of the biggest surprises of the last 20 years. Do you think Sixth Sense should be on here in place of say Bridesmaid? How about Austin Powers 2?

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    Chris Reply

    It’ll be interesting to see how the big films – the ones that are supposed to do well – perform at the box office this year. Im looking forward to Simon Pegg’s World’s End and predict it will do well and I’m sure the new Star Trek will do great box office too.

    Perhaps another “surprise” in recent years was the performance of Skyfall. It certainly showed that the James Bond franchise was far from dead…indeed, it’s thriving!

  8. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    @Chris: I’m still scratching my head at Skyfall’s performance. A billion dollars without 3D? That’s quite insane. It’s the third highest grossing film of all time that didn’t have 3D in it (Titanic had 3D of course, but that was the rerelease, the original still did 1.8 bill wo 3D).

    I’m really curious to see how Man of Steel does this summer and I really think Hobbit 2 will take a step back.

    Thor is another interesting one, as is Anchorman 2.

  9. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    And here are those UK grosses with Skyfall way out in front:

    The most pleasing film on this list – for me – is The Blair Witch Project. I don’t think we’ve seen anything like it in terms of the type of film, the quality of it, or the box office performance since then. It was quite incredible how that film caught fire at the box office.

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    Pete Reply

    Shame The Proposal and Mamma Mia had to pop up here. Very deserving of their places considering the box office but aprat from those two, I love pretty much all of these films!

    Blair Witch really was an epic success!

  11. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    Well, in terms of not agreeing with the list, there was a list of 30 summer films I picked. Only ten could make the list. Two that I am getting criticized for leaving off (from the box office nerds I talk to every day lol) are Shrek 2 and Spiderman. Spiderman was the first film to gross 100 mill opening weekend. That is incredible.

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    ruth Reply

    Wow, The Avengers kinda dwarfs them all doesn’t it? Marvel is still the one to beat now w/ Iron Man 3. Hmm, I had no idea Cliffhanger was a hit, still not inclined to see it though, ahah.

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    Josh Lyons Reply

    I still don’t think Cliffhanger is anything more than average. It all seems pretty cliche and Stallone seems like usual Stallone. I tend to laugh at my fiancee cause that’s the first movie she saw in theaters lol

  14. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    Thanks for all the comments guys, but keep in mind, this is not a list of the biggest films of the summer, for that list just go to This is a list for the biggest summer surprises….

  15. Avatar
    Lindsay Reply

    Interesting list. I remember being really surprised by POTC and at the time it seemed like it was one of the only great movies out that summer.

    I was surprised to see Mamma Mia on here, I had no idea it did so well in theaters!

  16. Avatar
    Ted S. Reply

    Agree on most of them Dan, I don’t think Cliffhanger and ID4 were considered surprises by their respective studios. These two films came out when I was in high school and I remember they were heavily promoted, in fact Cliffhanger was considered a disappointment since it earned just above $80mil here in the States, I think the studio were expecting at least $100mil in domestic box office returns. Summer of 1993 was dubbed Sly vs. Arnold since both of them had two big summer action films but both got crushed by dinosaurs. I would probably include The Fugitive on the surprise hit list since no one expected it to earn as much as it did. It became the second box office hit of summer of 1993, behind those damn dinosaurs. 🙂

    As for ID4, after a one minute teaser trailer during the Super Bowl, pretty much everyone I know was talking about that film. I just graduated from high school that summer and I think I saw it in theater 3 times. Fox expected it to be a huge hit and it didn’t disappoint. Personally I would put Twister as the surprise hit of summer of 1996. No big stars and it’s a film about tornadoes and it earned close to $500mil, $240mil here in the States! No one saw that coming.

    Good stuff!

  17. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    Great post Ted. I agree with you about Twister as well.

  18. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    I think this year you can add films like The Conjuring and We’re The Millers and definitely Now You See Me to this list.

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